Look, we all know what a phenomenon the original Lion King was when it was first released in 1994. Making nearly a billion dollars and universally praised, it’s no wonder that Disney would make it their latest endeavor of remaking their animated films into live action. People have been mixed on this latest trend; do we really need all these old films to be remade? Some have been really good while others have been mediocre at best. So, where does the king of Pride Rock fall? Was it a triumphant ROAR!? Or did it squeak out in defeat?
Director Jon Favreau brings what he learned from The Jungle Book and crafts a photorealistic world that is simply gorgeous to look at. All the animals look as real as possible and the Pride Lands have never looked more beautiful, I simply can’t believe that they didn’t send people over to Africa and shoot on location and that it’s all CGI. If there’s one thing you simply cannot argue, it’s the look of the movie. It gives a great new perspective on the sets that we are used to. But these good looks would be nothing without the acting talent to back it up, and The Lion King has that in spades. JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph bring great energy to young Simba and Nala. They both have a great singing voice, and there acting is nuanced and deep. JD McCrary really sells the heartbreak and sadness of Simba’s tragic childhood. John Oliver knocks it out of the park as Zazu, and of course, James Earl Jones is the one and only Mufasa. Seriously, Disney will never have anyone else play Mufasa, and I’m here for that.
Before talking about the rest of the cast, I need to shout out the biggest surprise, Scar. Chiwetel Ejiofor absolutely nails his portrayal as the villain. While nothing can replace Jeremy Irons’ Scar, Ejiofor makes the role all his own. To put it simply, he’s terrifying. I literally had goosebumps during his first monologue. Scar has this burning yet subtle hatred bubbling under the surface that plays into the history that we learn about him. And while he does get to sing his iconic song, it’s sadly a shorten version. Just as he’s getting ready to flex his pipes…it ends and that was a disappointment. Along with that, the changes they take with the hyenas (Eric Andre and Keegan-Michael Key) were a risky move that I think pays off. They aren’t slapstick funny anymore, but a lot of humor does come from them. Like Scar, they as a whole are a lot darker. I loved the direction they went with Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) who was originally part of the comedic hyena trio. Here, she is the matriarch of the pack and a scary one at that. Disney did a great job building the world with a little more depth.
Where the movie really started picking up for me was the introduction of Timon and Pumbaa. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen brought a fun and unique take on the duo. Not only are they funny, they also get a little bit meta about the first movie. The writing for them just flows so well, and they deliver each and every joke excellently. Donald Glover kills it as adult Simba. He perfectly captures that laidback Hakuna Matata feeling but still has a subtle air of royalty. Truly inspired casting as Glover was born to play this role. And let’s not forget about Beyoncé as the adult Nala. She brings a sort of fierceness to her character that I wish the movie showed more of. If I had one complaint about her, it would be that there were times were she was Nala, and there were times were it felt like Beyoncé was the character. Still though, she did a great job.
All the actors brought life into their roles and really nailed it, but this movie isn’t without its flaws. There are times where scenes were literally lifted out of the original animated script and transplanted here; it feels too safe for its own good. Whereas Aladdin changed a lot to make it its own thing (for the better in my opinion), Lion King doesn’t do enough to separate itself from the original. If you love the original, then you’ll enjoy this one and kids will absolutely love this film, but it doesn’t do much to get those who maybe didn’t like or were indifferent to the original. Another issue I had was the realism vs. the acting. There were a few occasions where there was some truly emotional acting, yet the faces were just that of a cat. It can be a bit jarring at times, but it happened few and far in between. Other than those issues, I really don’t have much to complain about.
Overall, The Lion King is another great film from Disney. It’s fun, it’s beautiful, and it’ll have you singing all your old favorites for the first time again. While not perfect with how realistic it is and how it takes the safer route, it’s still a good time to be had. If you wanted to see it, run out and see it. However, if you aren’t on the live-action Disney train then maybe wait for Disney+.